How did Ben Elton's "The Wright Way" get it so wrong?

The old comedy adage says that if there's nothing funny left to say, make a penis joke. Perhaps this explains why <em>The Wright Way</em> is just one big knob gag, then.

Ben Elton’s new sitcom, The Wright Way, was likely doomed from the moment the first scathing review went online. Coming from a widely-disliked figure like Elton - the turncoat, the sell-out - its reputation preceded it, other critics bundled on, and pretty soon everybody knew for certain that it was going to be a stinker. (At the time of writing, Wikipedia lists its genre as “Anti-comedy”.) The Twitter LOL-vultures circled.

As fun as the Twitter competition for the most cutting put-down was, there’s also reason to be slightly wary of this feedback loop of mass instant criticism. While online word-of-mouth can propel slow-burn, boxset-ready series to hit status, the real-time rush-to-judgement also has the potential to condemn shows before they’ve had a chance to find their feet.

Sitcoms are especially vulnerable to this; they’re notoriously hard to get right straight away. Test audiences hated the first episode of Friends; Men Behaving Badly had to lose its star and move to a different broadcaster before audiences embraced it; Blackadder didn’t reach its comic potential until they brought in a bold young talent called Ben something-or-other to shake up the second series. Quite simply, it’s a flat-out foolhardy and ignorant act to pass judgement on a sitcom’s true worth just a few episodes in.

Unless it’s The Wright Way, of course, because it’s utter, utter crap.

The second episode landed with a sickly thud on our televisions last night, and might have - somehow – managed to be worse than the first episode. A shockingly lazy calamity of a show, its many, many superficial failures serve only as a light and fluffy distraction from the vast, gaping flaws at its core. (The central character, David Haig’s health and safety officer Gerald Wright, is a crudely Frankensteined composite of Victor Meldrew and Gordon Brittas, who splits his time evenly between furiously railing against the petty annoyances of modern life and taking great pleasure in causing the petty annoyances of modern life. This is because Ben Elton only had so many jokes to go round and nobody could be bothered to tell him that it made absolutely no sense.)

Two episodes in, we can now start to sense the shape of the show’s broader trends. For example, some of the characters have catchphrases! David Haig’s catchphrase is “don’t get me started”. His daughter’s lesbian lover’s catchphrase is “this is such a YouTube moment” (because that is totes what all the young people say). Mina Anwar’s catchphrase is shouting.

If something wasn’t funny once, try repeating it. An entire section of dialogue about chest waxing is replicated, beat for beat, in both episodes. A plot about Wright’s ex-wife coming over for tea somehow takes two episodes to set up (possibly this counts as a “story arc”?) A character says the title of the show. Twice.

In what is clearly intended to be the series’ signature comic riff, each episode features a scene in which Wright constructs a series of tortuous acronyms on a whiteboard, unwittingly spelling out a rude phrase. These phrases, it turns out, also handily serve as the show’s epitaph:

As these demonstrate, above all else, the show hews tightly to the comic rule that if there’s nothing funny left to say, make a penis joke. Penis. Penis. Words that mean penis. Things that look like penises. Penis. At one point a character talks about vaginas, just to keep the audience guessing. Then back to penis. Penis. Penis acronyms. Actions that look like a character is using his penis. Penis.

Now: David Haig is a fine comic actor, and both he and his groin are veterans of many classically bawdy British comedies. His is a grizzled, old-timey groin that’s been the punchline to many a set-up, the prat of many falls, the penis ex machina that plugged a hundred plot holes. Like Rutger Hauer’s replicant in Blade Runner, this groin has seen things you people wouldn’t believe. And yet, there was a moment last night, as Haig’s battle-hardened, farce-calloused groin wearily humped a dustbin for the second time that episode, when - if you were watching in HD, perhaps - you could just about see his groin embracing the inevitability of death.

This sense of resignation in the face of doom pervades the whole shooting match. Elton could perhaps be forgiven for having lost his hunger, living as he does in a giant fort made of money and Queen CDs. But everywhere you look there are signs that nobody involved in the show gave much of a toss. Characters drinking out of mugs that are obviously empty. Haig spending most of a scene sitting at table where his face isn’t properly lit. Camera placements that can’t quite remember who was supposed to be in shot. And a dead-eyed cast, mechanically mugging their way through the script in the hope that if they just do everything loudly enough, their agents might return their children unharmed.

(My personal favourite is Beattie Edmonson’s increasingly desperate expressions while hanging around in the back of shots, trying to find something plausible to do with her face as she waits for her next line to stagger into view. Seriously, try re-watching it with the sound off, just focusing on her. It’s such a YouTube moment.)

So, bad show is bad. What of it? The problem here is not so much that somebody made a lousy TV show, it’s what they didn’t make instead. TV commissions are a zero-sum game - there are only so many pilots that can be ordered, only so many series made. And there are too many young writers desperate for a chance to try things out, to learn and fail and get better, for the BBC to be easily forgiven for shovelling time and money towards complacent, will-that-do dross like The Wright Way.

There’s no formula to comedy. Any commissioning policy worth a damn will produce as many failures as successes. But at least fail by trying.

This is why the Twitter hate-watchalong, entertaining as it was, was doomed to run out of steam long before episode two was halfway through. The Wright Way is not so bad it’s good, it’s so bad it’s simply exhausting. How can you work up the energy to mock something for missing the target when nobody involved seems to have cared enough to even aim for it? The sheer number of ungiven fucks have a profoundly enervating, soul-sapping quality. It’s like J K Rowling’s Dementors, sucking all the joy from a room. There’s just nothing funny left to say.

Penis.

 

The cast of Ben Elton's "The Wright Way", making serious faces while wearing hard hats. Photograph: BBC
SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle